Found in Translation?
21 September 2013
Last week my biography of Krystyna Skarbek, aka Christine Granville, the first woman to work for Britain as a special agent in the Second World War, was published in Poland. I think she would have been delighted that, in a way, she was finally coming home. There is no doubt that Poland was always home for her, albeit a home that had sometimes rejected her, and one to which she could not return after the war when the country was run by the Soviet-sponsored Communist regime. By the time of her death, in 1952, this courageous and deeply patriotic woman had adopted British nationality along with her British nom-de-guerre, Christine Granville, of which, she wrote, she was ‘rather proud’. However she remained, above all, a patriotic Polish émigré, switching effortlessly between Polish, English and French depending on her audience. In addition to everything else, Krystyna/Christine is a fascinating study in identity.
Of course, biographies are studies in identity too, but when my book was translated into Polish this took on deeper meaning. Would the Christine that I had researched, pictured and tried to present, be the same Krystyna that emerged on the pages of the Polish edition? Would the translation release her from the English idioms that she had never completely mastered, but which she enjoyed playing with for effect, and enable readers to hear her voice more clearly, more directly? Would the ‘English sense of humour’ she displayed in her letters to British friends, be lost, and, looking back, what nuances had I failed to catch when translating the woman to the page in the first place. Just how defined are we by our language, our nationality, and the nationality of those who aim to describe us?
Interestingly, my Polish publisher has changed the title of the book. Instead ofThe Spy Who Loved, which refers to Krystyna’s deep-seated desire for adrenalin, danger, men and, above all, freedom – for her country and for herself, the Polish edition is called, The Woman-Spy: A Pole on His Majesty’s Secret Service. Pleasingly there is still a hint of Bond here (Ian Fleming was inspired by Krystyna), but the central intrigue is now not that she was a passionate woman, but that she was a Polish woman working for the Brits.
Krystyna, and later her lover Andrzej Kowerski, were exceptional in being Polish nationals employed by the British special services during the war. Krystyna’s reasons, however, were entirely pragmatic. She was in southern Africa with her second husband, a diplomat, when Poland was invaded in September 1939. By the time she was back in Europe, Poland had fallen – but had not yet established its Government-in-Exile. Desperate to join the fight against the Nazis occupying her homeland, Krystyna stormed into the British Secret Services HQ and demanded to be taken on there and then. Her plan, soon put into action, was to ski over the perilous Carpathian mountains, sometimes in temperatures of -30 degrees, smuggling money and propaganda to the fledgling Polish resistance, and information, radio codes and microfilm back out. By the time she arrived in Budapest for her first mission, however, the Polish underground was getting organised and were determined to maintain their independence. As a result the main resistance group, the ZWZ, refused to work with Krystyna because officially she was already a British agent. This was a legitimate concern. The two countries might be allies but their interests would not always be aligned. ‘We are the Polish Underground,’ one officer put it colourfully, ‘and we do not wish the British to peek inside our underpants’.
Once in occupied Warsaw, however, Krystyna did join a fiercely independent Polish resistance group: the Musketeers. Unfortunately they would later be disbanded in disgrace; their leader assassinated for having entered into talks with the Nazis regarding the Russian threat. Krystyna would now never be accepted by Poland’s exiled government. Putting her life on the line was not enough, being passionately patriotic but not especially political, she had failed to play the strategic game. In her haste to serve her country she had in some Polish eyes betrayed it.
When the war in Europe ended, Krystyna was left stateless. She knew she could never return to Poland under the Communist regime. She may not have been aware that the British had at one point traded her name with the NKVD (precursor of the KGB), but being a pre-war Countess and war-time British special agent was enough to guarantee she would not be well-received. Yet the British, for whom she had put her life on the line for six years, the longest tour of duty of any female special agent, dismissed her with only £100. When someone in the British administration suggested she was not entitled to further deployment or citizenship because she had been fighting for Poland rather than Britain, she rightly remonstrated that this was rather ‘hard’, given that ‘I have got into so much trouble with the Poles because I worked for the firm’. The last British memo relating to her stated, ‘she is no longer wanted’. It was not our finest moment.
Ultimately Krystyna did gain British citizenship, having at one point refused to accept honours from a country that would not give her residency. When she died, in 1952, she had been awarded the British George Medal and the OBE, along with the Croix de Guerre from France, and an array of ribbons that any General would have been proud of. Yet among her collection, now kept at the Polish Institute and Sikorski Museum in London, is one unofficial badge of honour; a silver gorget (designed to be worn at the throat) in the shape of a shield embossed with the Polish white eagle. Because she was a British agent, Krystyna has never been honoured by the Poles, and this badge was perhaps her own private statement of her loyalty to, or token of appreciation from, the country that she served if not on paper, than certainly within her heart.
Publically recognised or not, Krystyna was never an exclusively British heroine. In fact despite being honoured officially here but not in Poland, she is probably better known in Poland today. Certainly the book launch at the Warsaw Uprising Museum next week is being organised by wonderfully generous and enthusiastic Poles, and attended by the Polish President, the Foreign Minister several other cabinet members, as well as the British Ambassador. Earlier, during my research, I had also found plenty in Polish archives, and through interviewing Poles both in Britain and Poland who, or whose relatives, had known Krystyna. On the other hand there was even more information in British archives. But how did she view herself, and in what language did she choose to communicate?
Krystyna was born and brought up in an area which is now Poland, but was then part of the Russian Empire. Belonging to a family of patriotic aristocrats, she spoke Polish at home, but French at her convent school. By the time she arrived in London in 1939, via Europe and southern Africa, she spoke some English too, although French remained her default foreign language. As a result, when the British sent her to Hungary it was under the guise of being a French journalist. It was here that Krystyna met her compatriot, soul-mate and partner-in-arms, Andrzej Kowerski, and their language of love was definitely Polish; she was his affectionate ‘kotek’ or kitten, and he her ‘kot’, her cat. In Egypt she took classes in English and Italian. She now spoke English charmingly, if not always very accurately, with a lilting accent and similarly seductive turn of phrase. She would often translate idioms literally if she felt it added impact, such as when telling admirers how she loved to ‘lie on the sun’. But then even her French was idiosyncratic. She was ‘fluent but rather breathy’, one friend noted, and her natural manner was to speak in a ‘halting… panting fashion’. Always conscious of the power of language, when she felt her Polish charm could not get her what she wanted, Krystyna would simply petition friends to write on her behalf ‘in your King’s English’.
All of the letters I traced in Krystyna’s own hand were written in English – although still with the odd Polish endearment and literally translated turn of phrase thrown in. ‘Perks kochany’ – literally ‘Darling Perks’ – she boldly opened one 1945 letter to Harold Perkins, her formidable SOE boss. This letter, the rest written in English, is a wonderful testimony to her courage and determination. ‘May be you find out I could be useful getting people out of camps and prisons in Germany – just before they get shot’, she wrote, ‘I should love to do it and I like to jump out of a plane even every day’. So brave, yet she clearly also felt nervous that her English might be letting her down, adding ‘Sorry for the spelling!’ in a rather jarring ps.
It seems that Krystyna mostly thought in Polish; this was the language that shaped her and best expressed – possibly even helped to define – her feelings and ambitions. As she learnt more languages she enjoyed collecting other useful turns of phrase, ‘quel potron’ (what a coward) was a favourite that friends remembered, as was the pleasingly expressive: ‘bloody fool’. As with her approach to friendships, it seems that Krystyna would pick and choose her language to suit her mood, intentions and audience.
Wherever I was researching, I tried to get to the truth of this extraordinary woman, but the fact is that there were many truths. Krystyna could be kind and generous, even with her life, but she could also be cruel and self-centred. She was tough and fiercely independent but also rather vulnerable. She lied, exploited and deceived, but she fought for justice, freedom and honour. Her mother was Jewish, her father was anti-Semitic; she was brought up a Catholic but converted to secure a divorce; she was a pre-war beauty queen and a highly-trained special agent fighting among men. She spoke several languages, was known under about twenty names, and she had two nationalities. It was the same Polish Maria Krystyna Janina Skarbek that became the British Polish émigré Christine Granville.
The truth is that we can only understand Krystyna in the context of her country, although it often rejected her, and in the context of her times, although I would argue that in many ways she was ahead of them. In life Krystyna was informed by, and let down by, Poland and Britain, but both her birth-country and her adoptive-country seem ready to embrace and honour her now. And if the Polish translation of my biography helps to reframe and present another flavour of this complex woman to the world, then that is certainly appropriate and I am absolutely delighted.